William Shullenberger

BA, Yale University. MA, PhD, University of Massachusetts. Special interests in Milton, 17th-century English literature, English Romanticism, African literature, theology and poetics, and psychoanalytic criticism. Author of Lady in the Labyrinth: Milton’s ‘Comus’ as Initiation; co-author with Bonnie Shullenberger of Africa Time: Two Scholars’ Seasons in Uganda; essays published in Milton Studies, Renaissance Drama, and other journals and collections. Senior Fulbright lecturer at Makerere University, Uganda, 1992-1994; director of NEH Summer Seminars on the classical and the modern epic, 1996 and 1999. SLC, 1982–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Conscience of the Nations: Classics of African Literature

Fall

One way to think of literature is as the conscience of a people, reflecting on their origins, their values, their losses, and their possibilities. This course will study major representative texts in which sub-Saharan African writers have taken up the challenge of cultural formation and criticism. Part of what gives the best writing of modern Africa its aesthetic power is the political urgency of its task: the past still bears on the present, the future is yet to be written, and what writers have to say matters enough for their work to be considered dangerous. Political issues and aesthetic issues are thus inseparable in their work. Creative tensions in the writing between indigenous languages and European languages, between traditional forms of orature and storytelling and self-consciously “literary” forms, register all the pressures and conflicts of late colonial and postcolonial history. To discern the traditionalist sources of modern African writing, we will first read examples from epic, folk tales, and other forms of orature. Major fiction will be selected from the work of Tutuola, Achebe, Beti, Sembene, Ba, Head, Ngugi, La Guma, Dangaremgba, and Sarowiwa; drama from the work of Soyinka and Aidoo; poetry from the work of Senghor, Rabearivelo, Okigbo, Okot p’Bitek, Brutus, Mapanje and others. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or in other major African or African American writers and movements, may be developed around a major theme or topic, and can include background study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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Odyssey/Hamlet/Ulysses

Spring

James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most important novels of literary modernism, tracks its two major characters, hour by hour, through the streets of Dublin, Ireland, on a single day, June 16, 1904. Never has the life of a modern city and the interior lives of its inhabitants been so densely and sensitively chronicled. But the text is not only grounded in the “real life” of turn-of-the-century Dublin; it is also deeply grounded in literary landscapes, characters, and plots that stretch back to Shakespeare—and beyond Shakespeare to Homer. This class offers the chance for close study of three great texts that are deeply implicated in one another: Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Joyce’s Ulysses. The themes of circular journeying, fate, identity, parent-child relations and indebtedness, and “the feminine mystique” that we trace in the Odyssey and Hamlet will prepare us for a careful and joyful reading of Joyce’s exuberant human comedy in Ulysses.

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Slavery: A Literary History

Spring

This course aims to provide a long view of literary representations and responses to slavery and the slave trade in the Americas from William Shakespeare to Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones. Expressing the conflicted public conscience—and perhaps the collective unconscious—of a nation, literature registers vividly the human costs (and profits) and dehumanizing consequences of a social practice whose legacy still haunts and implicates us. We will study some of the major texts that stage the central crises in human relations, social institutions, and human identity provoked by slavery, considering in particular how these texts represent the perverse dynamics and identifications of the master-slave relationship; the systematic assaults on identity and community developed and practiced in slave-owning cultures; modes of resistance, survival, and subversion cultivated by slave communities and individuals to preserve their humanity and reclaim their liberty; and retrospective constructions of and meditations on slavery and its historical consequences. Since literary structure and style are not only representational but also a means of subversion, resistance, and reclamation, we will do a lot of close reading. Readings will be drawn from the works of William Shakespeare, Aime Cesaire, Aphra Behn, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or in other writers engaged in the representation and interrogation of slavery, may be developed around a major theme or topic, and may include background study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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The Poetry of Earth: Imagination and Environment in English Renaissance Poetry

Fall

One of John Keats’s sonnets begins, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” This course will step back from Keats to the writing of several of his great predecessors in the English Renaissance to reflect on how imagination shapes environment and environment shapes imagination in the early modern period. The late 16th and 17th centuries were a time of transition between traditional feudal society with its hierarchical ideas of order, of humanity, and of nature and emerging modernity with its secularizing humanism, its centralization of political and economic power, its development of increasingly dense and complex urban centers, and its commitments to the study and potential mastery of nature through empirical science. With early modernity come all of the challenges to natural environment and its resources with which we are so familiar and by which we are so challenged: urban sprawl and environmental degradation, privatization of land, air and water pollution, deforestation and exhaustion of other resources, and diminishment of local species populations. We will study how several major writers register and respond to these tensions and these changes in what we might call their environmental vision, their imagination of nature as wilderness, the “other” to civilization and its values, as chaos and threat, as liminal space of transformation, as pastoral retreat, as cultivatable human habitation and home. Class reading will include major works of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, and Margaret Cavendish. Conference work may entail more extended work in any of these writers or literary modes or other authors in the period who are engaged in theorizing and imagining nature and may include study in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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Previous courses

17th-Century English Literature: Tradition and Transformation

Year

In the 17th century in England, the great ordering coherences of medieval and earlier Renaissance thinking seemed to disintegrate under the warring impulses of individualism and authority, empiricism and faith, revolutionary transformation and reinforcement of tradition. Yet even as the monarchy and the established church were challenged and torn apart, the 17th century produced an extraordinary flowering of drama, poetry, and prose that expressed the contradictory energies of the period. We will study English writing of the 17th century in a roughly chronological sequence. The first semester will explore the aesthetics and ideology of the Stuart courts and the robust and bawdy urban century of London through a reading of masques and plays by Jonson and Shakespeare and their contemporaries; dramatic experiments in “metaphysical” and moral verse by Donne, Jonson, Herbert, and other poets; various developments in scientific, philosophical, and meditative prose by Bacon, Burton, and Browne; and the early poetry of Milton. The second semester will be devoted to major writers during the periods of the English Revolution and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Our primary attention will be to the radical politics and the visionary poetics of Milton, particularly Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes; but we will also study the work of the cavalier and libertine court poets, as well as Andrew Marvell, Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden. John Bunyan’s spiritual allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and Behn’s colonial romance novel Oroonoko will provide a retrospect of the imagined and the social worlds that we have traversed and a prospect of the worlds to come.

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Epic Vision and Tradition from the <em>Odyssey</em> to Walcott’s <em>Omeros</em>

Year

The epic is a monumental literary form and an index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a writer’s creative power. Encyclopedic in its inclusiveness, the epic reflects a culture’s origins and projects its destiny, giving definitive form to its vital mythology and problematically asserting and questioning its formative values. This course on the emergence and development of the epic genre developed in the Western tradition will be organized around four central purposes. First, we will study the major structural, stylistic, and thematic features of each epic. Second, we will consider the cultural significance of the epic as the collective or heroic memory of a people. Third, we will examine how each bard weaves an inspired, yet troubled, image of visionary selfhood into the cultural and historical themes of the poem. Fourth, we will notice how the epic form changes shape under changing cultural and historical circumstances and measure the degree to which the influence of epic tradition becomes a resource for literary and cultural power. First term: Homer, Odyssey; Virgil, Aeneid; Dante, Inferno; Milton, Paradise Lost. Second term: Pope, The Rape of the Lock; Wordsworth, The Prelude; Eliot, The Waste Land; Joyce, Ulysses; Walcott, Omeros.

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First-Year Studies in Literature: Texting and Intertexting

No literary text stands alone. New texts build themselves out of creative engagements and dialogues with other texts. A literary tradition builds itself out of interchanges between writers and other writers, between writers and readers. This course will study the intertextual give and take among ancient and more modern writers. We will study clusters of books where we can see the textual dynamics of interchange and extension at work, linking “modern” texts with “classics” of earlier times. We will consider the ways in which writers in the last two centuries, particularly writers of color, have established their own creative authority and cultural centrality—in part by creative reading and re-envisioning several of the most powerful texts of Western literature: Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The cultural authority and imaginative power invested in such “canonical” stories make literary tradition an imagined place for experimentation with ideas of self and society and language, for the extension of the sense of self and community into new forms and possibilities. Among the modern writers whose works we will study as creative and transformative responses to the “classics” will be: Derek Walcott, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Gloria Naylor, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, Charles Chesnutt, and Toni Morrison. These modern writers’ various strategies of appropriation, subversion, and transformation will vivify and focus our sense of the still challenging imaginative and social power of the “classical” texts. These instances of literary interchange should provide us with a way of thinking about literary tradition as liberating, dynamic, and pluralistic.

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The Bible and Literature

Year

The Bible: The story of all things, an epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration. A riven and riveting family saga that tops all others in its depiction of romance, intrigue, deception, betrayal, existential dread, love, and redemption. An account, as one commentator described it, of God’s ongoing “lover’s quarrel” with humanity. A primary source book for major literature in the Western tradition, still powerful in its influence on the style and subject matter of both prose and poetry. In the first term, this course will provide close readings of major biblical narratives and poetry in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Lectures will explore and interpret a number of patterns and literary types: the major historical narratives of both scriptures; the poetics and speech acts of creation, blessing, promise, covenant, curse, and redemption; the visionary prophetic tradition from Moses to John, the writer of the Apocalypse; the self-reflective theological interpretations of history by Hebrew chroniclers and the New Testament letters of Paul; the sublime poetry of the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Apocalypse of John; the dark wisdom of the Book of Job and of Ecclesiastes. The second term will study the work of major writers who have grounded their own work in biblical themes, narrative patterns, characters, and images. Selections will be made from the work of Dante, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.

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